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Is Donald Trump's North Korea strategy working?

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year's Day speech ...

Posted: Jan 5, 2018 7:45 PM
Updated: Jan 5, 2018 7:45 PM

Kim Jong Un, to general surprise, announced in his New Year's Day speech that he was prepared to "melt the frozen north-south relations," to allow contacts with South Koreans and to discuss North Korean participation in the Winter Olympics to be held in February in South Korea.

US President Trump has tweeted that this would not have happened had he not been "firm, strong and willing to commit our total 'might' against the North."

He may be partly right. The single most important factor driving the North Koreans to this decision was probably economic distress.

Pyongyang's anxieties are evident from Kim Jong Un's speech, most of which focused on the economy. Agriculture and fisheries, he said, "need an upswing," while light industry should save electricity and also produce more goods with local materials. This means that supplies of food, power and imported raw materials are all problematic.

So, to the extent that these problems are due to US-inspired sanctions (they were also caused by a severe drought last year and by the inefficiencies of North Korea's unreformed economy), President Trump has a point.

But President Trump's unpredictability may also have contributed to Pyongyang's decision. When United Nations Undersecretary-General Jeffrey Feltman visited Pyongyang from December 5 through 8, the North Koreans asked him repeatedly how decisions were made in Washington. They are nervous that the United States is now behaving in ways that they cannot predict and are probably anxious at President Trump's talk of military action.

So, Pyongyang probably hopes not only to ease its economic problems by persuading South Korea to slacken its implementation of sanctions (South Korea's seizure last month of two vessels caught illegally transhipping oil to North Korean vessels will have alarmed Pyongyang) and perhaps to give it some direct economic assistance, but also by warming relations with a key US ally to reduce the risk of a surprise US strike on its facilities.

But that does not explain the timing of the North Korean announcement. Its change in tone was sudden. The North Koreans gave Feltman no reason to think that they were open to talks with anyone, and as late as December 30, North Korea's state media published a fiery policy document warning the US does "not expect any change in (the DPRK's) policy." Two days later, Kim Jong Un did just that. Why?

Perhaps the immediate trigger was the announcement on December 19 by President Moon Jae-In of South Korea that he had asked the US military to postpone the annual joint US-South Korean exercises until after the Winter Olympics. The North Koreans hate these exercises and have often tried to get them postponed, reduced or canceled, so this may have seemed too good an opportunity to miss. They acted quickly, meeting South Korean officials secretly right at the end of December, probably to say that North Korea would take part in the Olympics if the postponement was confirmed (which, following a conversation between President Moon and President Trump, it now has been). But there is more than this. Kim Jong Un warned South Korea against "joining the United States in its reckless moves for a north-targeted nuclear war." When the two sides meet on January 9, it is likely that the North will press the South to take a more independent line in an effort to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, a major North Korean strategic objective.

So, the talks will be delicate. To give the North Koreans too little would risk the door slamming shut again, but to give them too much could undermine the sanctions regime that remains the single best hope for persuading Pyongyang to halt its nuclear programs. But if (a big if) all goes well, they might just lead to wider talks. Kim Jong Un's speech was surprisingly gentle on the United States. He used no language stronger than the colorful reference to his nuclear button -- mild by North Korean standards -- and sanctions were not even mentioned. (His speech was much shorter than usual. Were condemnations of the United States cut at the last minute?).

Is he signaling that, if talks with the South go well, he just might talk with the United States, too? And if so, will he pause his nuclear and missile tests?

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 313942

Reported Deaths: 7240
CountyCasesDeaths
DeSoto21580258
Hinds20330415
Harrison17879309
Rankin13594278
Jackson13429246
Madison10088217
Lee9970174
Jones8370163
Forrest7670152
Lauderdale7188241
Lowndes6387146
Lamar622486
Lafayette6184118
Washington5332133
Bolivar4801132
Oktibbeha462198
Panola4582106
Pearl River4506146
Marshall4435103
Warren4386121
Pontotoc420172
Monroe4107133
Union410076
Neshoba4030176
Lincoln3962110
Hancock378486
Leflore3493125
Sunflower335990
Tate333384
Pike3316105
Scott315773
Alcorn312768
Yazoo311469
Itawamba299777
Copiah296865
Coahoma295179
Simpson294988
Tippah288168
Prentiss279760
Adams278782
Marion269080
Leake267473
Wayne262641
Grenada261386
Covington258281
George247848
Newton246261
Winston227081
Tishomingo226667
Jasper221048
Attala214273
Chickasaw207757
Holmes188873
Clay185254
Stone182433
Tallahatchie178541
Clarke177980
Calhoun170532
Yalobusha164238
Smith162334
Walthall133945
Greene130533
Lawrence128524
Montgomery126742
Noxubee126734
Perry126338
Amite123042
Carroll121828
Webster114532
Jefferson Davis107033
Tunica105226
Claiborne102430
Benton99525
Humphreys96533
Kemper95728
Franklin83623
Quitman80716
Choctaw76318
Wilkinson67230
Jefferson65528
Sharkey50217
Issaquena1686
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 531404

Reported Deaths: 10985
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson765501522
Mobile41036805
Madison34789503
Tuscaloosa25788453
Montgomery24340589
Shelby23449249
Baldwin21154308
Lee15882171
Calhoun14511314
Morgan14306279
Etowah13843353
Marshall12232223
Houston10570281
Elmore10068205
Limestone9974151
Cullman9676194
St. Clair9661243
Lauderdale9427241
DeKalb8831186
Talladega8227176
Walker7241277
Autauga6926108
Jackson6814112
Blount6678137
Colbert6306134
Coffee5519119
Dale4838111
Russell441538
Chilton4296112
Franklin426082
Covington4129118
Tallapoosa4023152
Escambia393677
Chambers3573123
Dallas3551152
Clarke351161
Marion3122101
Pike310977
Lawrence300398
Winston274473
Bibb260964
Geneva250477
Marengo249564
Pickens234461
Barbour231057
Hale223077
Butler216069
Fayette212562
Henry188844
Cherokee185245
Randolph180542
Monroe177540
Washington167339
Macon159650
Clay156756
Crenshaw152557
Cleburne148941
Lamar142535
Lowndes138853
Wilcox127130
Bullock122841
Conecuh110529
Perry107726
Coosa107628
Sumter104732
Greene92534
Choctaw60724
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